Aside from the clicking of camera shutters, the room was silent as audience members intently awaited the Dalai Lama's response to actor Forest Whitaker's question: What actions can we take to have more compassion for others?

"I don't know," the Dalai Lama said after a few seconds, as the crowd laughed.

The 81-year-old Tibetan spiritual leader was in Eden Prairie on Friday for a panel discussion on compassion sponsored by Starkey Hearing Technologies.

The discussion, moderated by Whitaker — a UNESCO envoy and CEO of his own peace initiative — was attended by roughly 250 businesspeople, politicians and Starkey employees at the company's headquarters.

Flanked by a Tibetan flag on one side of the stage and an American flag — and translator — on the other, the Dalai Lama frequently reached over to touch Whitaker's arm, used hand gestures and laughed at his own comments and broken English while elaborating on his widely followed philosophical views.

He used humor to dispel the solemn reverence typically shown by those in the presence of a global spiritual and political leader, even as he discussed such serious topics as political divisiveness, religious conflict and mental health.

Compassion — which he defined as "a sense of concern for others, including animals, birds, insects" — is the antidote for anger and fear, he said. Genuine smiles are a form of showing and spreading it. But there apparently are limits.

"Occasionally, I find it difficult to keep compassion toward the mosquito," he said.

He went on to decry materialism as a hindrance to compassion and stressed the idea that negative feelings of anger and fear arise from an individual's own perception of the world. He said people should develop a "sense of universal responsibility" and understand that "technology will not provide us love."

"Material value [can] only provide physical comfort, not mental comfort," he said. "Physical pain can [be subdued] by mental joyfulness; mental worry cannot [be subdued] by physical comfort. So obviously, the mental level experience[s] are more serious."

The Dalai Lama said that educators should teach students about mental health and perception, saying that it's "necessary to know more about our mind and emotion."

And he elicited some nervous laughter from the audience when he said he doesn't think it's effective when people pray to God while they're experiencing emotional difficulties.

"Ninety percent of negativeness is mental perception," he said. "Attachment is the basis of anger."

The Dalai Lama offered musings about global politics and religion from his many years of travel, saying the African Union should develop in the manner of the European Union to reduce wars, and that India is a global example of religious tolerance for its largely peaceful coexistence of different faiths. He said that while conflict in the name of national interests is "quite understandable," conflict in the name of religion is "unthinkable."

When asked about bridging the political divide in the United States, he said he would first need to spend a couple of months in Washington, D.C. — then maybe he could offer some suggestions.

But he did discuss leadership, saying that effective leaders gain trust when they have genuine concern for those they lead. In order to get a fuller picture, he said, leaders need to understand a variety of different perspectives.

"Farsightedness is very important," he said.

On the subject of compassion, Starkey owner Bill Austin said that showing kindness and concern for others uplifts them. Having a stronger sense of compassion and respect for others can help ease political differences, he said.

After following up on a question about leadership posed to the Dalai Lama, Austin acknowledged the attention and applause that the spiritual leader was getting throughout the program.

"Once again, His Holiness has covered the subject quite well," he said, to audience laughter. 612-673-4689 • Twitter: @jarahsarvis